What is cancer-related pain?
While some cancer types are inherently painful, regardless of stage, many patients fighting advanced cancers may experience pain caused by tumors rubbing against organs, nerves or bones. Tests and treatments may also cause pain, or compound it by prompting side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, anemia, lymphedema, fatigue, fever, chills and mouth sores.
While a certain amount of pain can be expected, a number of therapies can be used to alleviate, manage and reduce suffering.
How likely are cancer patients to experience pain?
The American Cancer Society calls pain “one of the most common and feared symptoms of cancer," estimating that 50 percent to 70 percent of cancer patients experience uncontrolled pain at some point in their cancer journey, depending on the stage of their disease. Over 40 percent of cancer patients say they have been unable to find adequate relief, even though multiple remedies are available to them. Managing pain is critical to cancer patients’ quality of life and ability to continue treatment, not only because the pain can be debilitating on its own, but because it has also been linked to depression, despondency and weakness.
How can integrative care help?
A number of supportive care services are available to address the physical, emotional and spiritual components of pain. Acupuncture, cancer medication, chiropractic care and oncology rehabilitation services may be employed to attack the pain head on, while mind-body medicine and spiritual support may be helpful in chipping away at some of the underlying issues that contribute to discomfort or prevent healing.
This centuries-old Chinese practice, known for its restorative powers, applies needles to “acupoints,” or strategic parts of the body. The needles are typically left in place for a few minutes, usually causing virtually no additional pain when performed by a skilled acupuncturist. While it is not fully understood how acupuncture works, research suggests it may alleviate pain by “causing physical responses in nerve cells, the pituitary gland and parts of the brain, affecting blood pressure and body temperature,” according to the National Cancer Institute. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), our acupuncturists are in regular communication with other members of the patient’s care team to evaluate progress and results.
At CTCA®, licensed chiropractic physicians use various techniques to address aches, stiffness in the neck or lower back, or sciatic nerve discomfort that may be the primary source of pain. Those suffering from pain caused by peripheral neuropathy, typically concentrated in the patient’s hands and feet, may also find relief through hands-on adjustment, massage, stretching, electrical muscle stimulation, heat, ice or traction techniques. Our chiropractors work closely with the patient’s oncologist to determine if and what chiropractic treatments are appropriate and beneficial.
Mind-body therapists have a number of tools at their disposal to alleviate discomfort, including:
- Reiki therapy, a gentle, non-invasive form of therapy that uses energy to promote healing, reduce pain and enhance the cancer patient’s general well-being
- Breathing and relaxation techniques, to revive weary patients and help them establish a sense of calm
- Guided imagery, which leads patients through positive visualization exercises, helping them detach from the pain and transport themselves to a soothing state
- Music therapy, which encourages patients to release stress and negativity by listening, discussing, creating or playing along to music
- EFT, or the Emotional Freedom Technique, which uses tapping on specific acupressure points to alleviate emotional and physical discomfort
This multidisciplinary team of clinicians uses physical, occupational, manual, speech and language therapy to help cancer patients relieve a wide variety of cancer-related side effects, including pain. Oncology rehabilitation therapists use different exercises to help patients experiencing pain from surgery or treatment, as well as body/muscle/joint stiffness from reduced mobility. Practicing proper posture and stretching and strengthening exercises may restore normal body positioning and reduce stress on the spine and joints. Speech therapy may help reduce pain associated with eating, swallowing and speaking. Massage therapy offers a variety of services to reduce pain and headaches, including manual massage, acupressure, reflexology and craniosacral therapies. Some massage therapists may offer Reiki therapy.
Pain management physicians are essential players on the cancer patient’s care team. At CTCA, our pain management team is staffed by physicians and other clinicians trained in cancer care. These doctors primarily help patients find relief through the use of prescription and non-prescription pain medications. This requires an ongoing dialogue with patients and their care teams to ensure drugs are working as intended, while balancing and managing potentially harmful medication-related side effects. Pain management physicians may also use nerve block therapies, implanted pain pumps or trigger point injections to address pain, and they often recommend other integrative care services such as chiropractic care, physical and massage therapy to achieve a well-rounded symptom-relief management plan.
Whether patients are suffering physically or emotionally, faith can offer a meaningful new perspective that can provide pain relief. Anger, guilt or anxiety—emotions that are common to patients confronting a cancer diagnosis—may compound physical pain. With the help of spiritual support services, patients work with chaplains and spiritual advisors to learn how to release and heal painful thoughts, judgments and feelings. The pastoral care team at CTCA may help them view their circumstances through a new lens and focus their attention away from the pain through prayer, meditation and other spiritual therapies. While these services don’t promise to eliminate pain, they can offer a source of diversion and comfort that may prove beneficial to symptom relief.